Read Chapter XII. The Foreign Page of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Early should rise
He who has few workers,
And go his work to see to;
Greatly is he retarded
Who sleeps the morn away;
Wealth half depends on energy.

Ha’vama’l.

It was August, when Mother Earth had nearly completed her task of providing for her children, and the excitement of a mighty work drawing to its close was in the air; when the sun-warmed stillness was a-quiver with the of growing things coming to their strength, and every cloudless day held in its golden heart a song of exultation. The grassy space around the Tower, which was wont to be thronged with joyous idlers, was to-day almost deserted. A single groom lounged in the shade of the wide-spreading trees as he kept a lazy eye on the croppings of two saddled horses, and an endless chain of fagot-laden serfs plodded joylessly across the open. On one side of the great entrance arch a half-dozen of the manor poor gabbled and basked in the sun while they waited to receive their daily dole of food; on the other, a dark-locked foreign page sat on the mossy step abiding the coming of his master.

Leaning back with one arm bent carelessly behind his head and one hand caressing a shaggy hound that pressed against his knee, the boy’s far-away gaze was designed to intimate his haughty oblivion to the castle-world in general and the movements of the almsfolk in particular. Seeing which, the people on the other side of the step had laid aside any reserve they might have felt and were indulging their curiosity with cheerful freedom.

“Six weeks he has been here, and this is the first good look I have had at him,” the buzzing whispers ran. “It is said that they were obliged to catch him between shields before they could take him."... “Such hair on a Dane is more rare than a white crow."... “I believe no good of any one with locks of that color."... “Tibby, the weaving-woman, says he is skilful in magic."... “It is by reason of that, that he has become my lord’s darling."... “Why is he not in the hall, then, while the ethel-born is sitting at table?"... “Perhaps his luck is beginning to fail him."... “Perhaps he has fallen out of favor.”

The two old men who offered these last suggestions chuckled with malicious enjoyment, and two of the old women mumbled with their toothless gums as though tasting sweet morsels; but the third drew herself up with a kind of grotesque coquetry.

“You can tell by the green silk of his tunic that he is of some quality,” she reproved them. “Danishmen are ever the ones to adorn themselves. It occurs to my mind how, in Edgar’s time, when I was a girl, one was quartered in my father’s house. He changed his raiment once a day and bathed every Sunday. I used to comb his yellow hair when I took in his ale, of a morning.” Long after her voice had passed into a rattle, she stood in a simpering revery, her palsied hands resting heavily upon her stick, her blinking eyes fixed on the picturesque young foreigner musing in the sunshine.

Then the voice of the steward sounded sharply in the archway. There was an eager catching up of bags and baskets, a shuffling forward of unsteady feet, and the goody came out of her day-dream to throw herself into the strife over a jar of peppered broth.

The Danish page bent to pillow a very red cheek on the soft cushion of the dog’s head, then drew back and straightened himself stiffly as a strapping serving-lass, flagon-laden, came out of the door behind him. She saw the motion and looked down with a teasing laugh. “Aha, young Fridtjof! How do you like being sent to cool your heels on the doorstep while your master eats? What! I think that the next time you thrust your foot out to trip me up as I hand my lord his ale, you will attend to keeping it under your stool.”

Young Fridtjof regarded her with a kind of righteous indignation. “And I think that the next time you will look where you are going, even if it happen that it is Lord Sebert’s ale you are bearing. Silly jades, that cannot come nigh him without biting your lips or sparkling your eyes! I wonder he does not clap masks over your faces.”

“And I wonder he does not clap rods to your back,” the lass retorted with sudden spite. She flounced past him down the step, on her way to the great lead-roofed storehouse that flanked the forest side of the Tower.

The boy looked after her sternly. “It is likely that you will be less pert of tongue after I tell what I found out in the corn-bins yesterday,” he said.

The maid whirled. “What did you find out, you mischief-full brat?”

He continued to stroke the dog’s head in dignified silence. “If you mean the the brown-cloaked beggar, let me inform you that that is naught.”

Busying himself with pulling burrs from the hound’s ears, the page began to hum softly.

She came a step nearer, and her voice wheedled. “It was only that he was distressed for want of drink, poor fellow, and followed me into the storehouse when he saw me go in to fill the master’s flagon. It was naught but a swallow. My lord would be the last to grudge a harmless body ”

“Harmless?” the page said sternly. “Did I not hear him tell you the same as that he was an English spy?”

The girl abandoned the last shred of her dignity, to come and stand before him, nervously fingering her apron. “For the dear saints’ sake, let no one hear you say that, good Fridtjof! Alas, how you have got it twisted! He is an Englishman who bent his head for food in the evil days. And now they that bought him will not set him loose, so he has cast off their yoke and fled to the Danes to get freedom and fortune. He was on his way to join your people when he stopped to beg food. I could not be so hard of heart as to refuse, though Hildelitha’s hand would be hot about my ears did she suspect it. Say that you will hold your tongue, sweet lad, and I will make boot with anything you like.”

He was very deliberate about it, the page, pursing his rosy mouth into any number of judicial puckers; but at last he conceded, “Now, since you know for certain that he is not one of Edmund’s spies, and you are so penitent, as is right,” pausing, he regarded her severely, “if I do promise, will you make a bargain to put an end to your silly behavior toward my lord? Will you undertake to deliver his dishes into my hands, and leave it for me to pass his cup?”

“Yes, in truth; by Father Ingulph’s book!” the maid cried, wringing her hands.

The page made her a magnanimous gesture. “In that case I will not be so mean as to refuse you,” he consented. And he sat smiling to himself in sly content after she had hurried away.

Emboldened by that smile, the dog suddenly laid aside his soberness of demeanor. Pouncing upon a fagot which had fallen from one of the loads, he brought it in his teeth, with shining eyes and much frantic tail-wagging, and rubbed it against his friend’s knee. He had not miscalculated. The boy’s smile deepened easily into a laugh, and he leaped to his feet to accept the challenge. Seizing the stick, he put all the strength of his lithesome body into an effort to make off with it, while the great hound braced himself, with a rapture of rumbling growls and short delighted barks. So they tussled, back and forth, this way and that, amid a merry tumult of barking and laughter, such a tumult that neither heard the steps that both were waiting for, when at last those steps came briskly through the archway. The first they knew of it, the Lord of Ivarsdale was standing under the lintel, chatting with those who came behind him.

With lips yet parted by their breathless laughter, the lad straightened quickly from his sport, and stood shaking back his tumbling curls and mopping his hot face, in which the rich color glowed through the tanned skin like the velvety red on a golden peach. When, for one flashing instant, they encountered a keen glance from the young lord, the color deepened, and the iris-blue eyes suddenly brimmed over with mischievous sparkles; then the black lashes were lowered demurely, and the page, retreating to his place beside the step, signified only deference and decorum.

Followed by old Morcard and the fat monk, the Etheling descended from the doorway and stood on the broad step, shading his eyes from the glare of brilliant light while he looked about him with evident pleasure in the fairness of the day.

“Now is the time to lay by a store of sweet memories against the stress of winter weather,” he said. “Whither do you go to harvest the sunshine, father?”

The monk pulled his round red face to a devout length. “Why, there is a good woman at the other end of the dale, my son, that labors under a weakness of her limbs; and I have bethought me that it would be a Christian act to fetch her this holy relique I wear about my neck, that she may lay it upon the afflicted members and perhaps, aided by my exhortations, experience some relief.”

“If the question may be permitted me, whither do you betake yourself, my lord?” the old cniht asked.

With the light wand he carried, the young man made a gesture quite around the horizon. “Everywhere and nowhere. After I have been to see what they are doing with that portion of the palisade which I bade them repair as soon as they had finished the barrier, I am ”

“That is something that had clean fallen out of my mind to tell you, Lord Sebert,” Morcard spoke up hastily. “Yesterday, before you had got in from hunting, Kendred of Hazelford came, as spokesman for the rest, to say that inasmuch as the Barn Month is well begun, it will not be possible for them to labor more upon the building; and, by your leave, they will put off this, which is not pressing, until after the time of the harvest.”

It was several moments before the Etheling spoke, and then his voice was noticeably deliberate. “Oh!” he said, “so they ask my leave, but stop at their pleasure?”

“My lord!” the old man looked at him in surprise “they act only according to custom. Surely you would not have them neglect the harvest, which waits no man’s leisure, to put to their hands as laborers when there is no present need, now that they have completed the barriers by the stream? What present harm because the drain off the hill has rotted the palisade? All of that part is toward the forest. How? Do you expect some Grendel of the March to fall upon us from that direction?”

The Etheling smiled against his will. “Our foe would needs be a Grendel to reach us from that side.” He struck the wand sharply against his riding-boots. “Oh, it is not that I think the work so pressing.”

“In the Fiend’s name, what then is the cause of your distemper?” Father Ingulph inquired impatiently, as he finished the girding-up of his robes and picked up his staff preparatory to setting forth.

After a moment, the young noble began to laugh. “Why, to tell it frankly, methinks it is more temper than distemper. That they should take it upon them to decide how much of my order is necessary ” He let a pause finish for him, and suddenly he turned with a flourish of gay defiance: “I will tell you how I am going to spend my morning, Morcard. I am going to ride over every acre that is under my hand and see how much I can spare for loan-land. And when I have found out, I will rent every furlong to boors who shall be bound to pay me service, not when it best pleases them, but whensoever I stand in need of it.”

Rubbing his chin, the monk heard him in silence; but the old warrior grew momentarily grave. “Take care that you seem not over proud, young lord. It is in such a mood that Edmund creates thanes.”

It may be that the Etheling’s eyes widened for an instant, but directly after he laughed with gay perverseness. “Is it?” he said. “Then, for the first time in six weeks, I see that the Ironside is cunning in thought.”

Shaking his head, Father Ingulph moved down the step. “Nay, if you are in that humor, my son, I waste no breath. Speed you well, and may you wax in wisdom!” With a gesture, half paternal, half respectful, he betook himself across the grass to the gate.

Old Morcard turned and stepped up into the doorway, from which he looked down indulgently upon his laughing master. “It happened formerly, Lord Sebert, that I knew how to command your earnestness, and that speedily; but that time has long gone by. Methinks I can accomplish more among the watchmen upon the platform. By your leave, my lord!” Bowing, he disappeared in the dark tunnel of the archway, and the Etheling was left alone save for the graceful figure awaiting him beside the step. The instant he moved, it sprang forward.

“Lord, is it your wish that I get the horses?”

As the old man had looked down upon the young one, so now the young man stood looking down upon the boy, regarding him with tolerant severity. “You most mischief-full elf!” he said. “It would be treating you deservedly were I to leave you at home.”

It did not appear that the lad was seriously cast down; a betraying dimple came out and played in his cheek, though his mouth struggled for gravity. “That is unjustly spoken, lord,” he protested. “Did I not bear my punishment with befitting penitence?”

“Penitence!” the Etheling gave one of the small ears a menacing pull as he descended to the grass. “What! Do you think I did not see your antics with the dog? You made a jest of the matter, you pixie!”

The page sobered. “I think it great luck that I could, Lord Sebert! Your servants were eager in making a jest of me when they got the courage from your displeasure.”

But Lord Sebert reached out the wand and gave him a gentle stroke across the shoulders.

“Take that for your foolishness,” he said lightly. “What matters their babble when you know how safe you sit in my favor?”

Through lowered lashes the boy stole him a glance, half mischievous, half coaxing. “How safe, lord?” he murmured.

But the Etheling only laughed at him, as he drew up his long riding-boots and readjusted his belt. “Safe enough so that I forgive you some dozen floggings a day, you imp; and choose you for my comrade when I should be profiting by the companionship of your betters. Waste no more golden moments on whims, youngling, but go bid them fetch the horses, and we will have another day of blithe wandering.”

Blithe they were, in truth, as they cantered through shaded lanes and daisied meadows, nothing too small to be of interest or too slight to give them pleasure. An orchard of pears, whose ripening they were watching with eager mouths, a group of colts almost ready for the saddle, for the young master the fascination of ownership gave them all a value; while another fascination made his companion hang on his least word, respond to his lightest mood.

By grassy commons and rolling meadows sweet with clustering haycocks, they came at last to the crest of the hill that guarded the eastern end of the dale. The whole round sweep of the horizon lay about them in an unbroken chain of ripening vineyards and rich timber-land, of grain-fields and laden orchards; not one spot that did not make glorious pledges to the harvest time. Drinking its fairness with his eyes, the lord of the manor sighed in full content. “When I see how fine a thing it is to cause wealth to be where before was nothing, I cannot understand how I once thought to find my pleasure only in destroying,” he said. “Next month, when the barley beer is brewed, we will have a harvest feast plentiful enough to flesh even your bones, you bodkin!”

The Danish page laughed as he dodged the plaguing wand. “It is true that you owe something to my race, lord. He had great good sense, the Wide-Fathomer, to stretch his strips of oxhide around this dale and turn it into an odal.”

“Nay now, it was Alfred who had sense to take it away from him,” the Etheling teased.

But the boy shook back his long tresses in airy defiance. “Then will Canute be foremost in wisdom, for soon he will get it back, together with all England. Remember who got the victory last week at Brentford, lord.”

In the midst of his exulting, a cloud came over the young Englishman’s smile. “I would I knew the truth concerning that,” he said slowly. “The man who passes to-day says one thing; whoso comes to-morrow tells another story. Yet since Canute is once more free to beset London ” He did not finish, and for a while it appeared as though he did not see the sunlit fields his eyes were resting on.

But suddenly the boy broke in upon him with a burst of stifled laughter. “Look, lord! In yonder field, behind the third haycock!”

The moment that he had complied, laughter banished the Etheling’s meditations. Cozily ensconced in the soft side of a haycock was Father Ingulph, a couple of jovial harvesters sprawled beside him, a fat skin of ale in his hands on its way to his mouth. As the pair on the hilltop looked down, one of the trio began to bellow out a song that bore no resemblance whatever to a hymn. Keeping under cover of the bushes, the eavesdroppers laughed with malicious enjoyment.

“But I will make him squirm for that!” the Etheling vowed. “I will tell him that your paganism has made spells over me so that I cannot tell a holy relique from an ale-skin; and a bedridden woman looks to me like two strapping yeomen. I will, I swear it!”

“And I shall be able to hold it against him as a shield, the next time he is desirous to fret me about taking a new belief,” the boy rejoiced.

But presently Sebert’s remarks began to take a new tone. “They have the appearance of relishing what they have in that skin,” he observed first. And then, “I should not mind putting my own teeth into that bread-and-cheese.” And at last, “By Saint Swithin, lad, I think they have more sense than we, that linger a half-hour’s ride from food with a noonday sun standing in the sky! It is borne in upon me that I am starving.”

Backing his horse out of the brush, he was putting him about in great haste, when the boy leaped in his stirrups and clapped his hands.

“Lord, we need not be a half-hour from food! Yonder, across the stubble, is a farmhouse. If you would consent that I might use your name, then would I ride thither and get their best, and serve it to you here in the elves’ own feast-hall.”

The answer was a slap on the green shoulders that nearly tumbled their owner from the saddle. “Now, I was right to call you elf, for you have more than human cleverness!” the Etheling cried gayly. “Do so, by all means, dear lad; and I promise in return that I will tell every puffed-up dolt at home that you are the blithest comrade who ever fitted himself to man’s moods. There, if that contents you, give wings to your heels!”